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Favorite Edition 2015: Half year

[Björk - Vulnicura]

2015 is turning out to be one of those years where the really good albums suck so much oxygen out of the rest of the release schedule that it’s tough to put together even a speculative list.

That’s a long-winded way to say Sleater-Kinney’s return has pretty much overshadowed everyone else.

    • Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love: Sleater-Kinney left at the height of their career, and a 10-year hiatus did nothing to dim that achievement.
    • Björk, Vulnicura: I like Björk best when she’s more beat-oriented because her more introspective work tends to meander. This album is too wrenching to mess around.
    • Madonna, Rebel Heart: I would agree this album is Madge’s best since Ray of Light mostly because it’s head and shoulders above the last few meandering discs she put out, Confessions on the Dancefloor not withstanding.
    • Steve Grand, All American Boy: The rockist in me should rally against everything about this album, but I can’t bring myself to do it.
    • Takaakira “Taka” Goto, Classical Punk and Echoes Under the Beauty: The decidedly non-orchestral direction of MONO’s Rays of Darkness was a welcome direction that I feared this album would be a relapse. It’s not.
    • Kronos Quartet, Tundra Songs: I was bracing myself for more international crossover, but this album is some pretty adventurous and spellbinding music.
    • Torche, Restarter: I liked Harmonicraft, but Gaytheist’s Stealth Beats was more my speed. Then Torche recorded this album.
    • Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, The Traveling Kind: I hate to say this, but this album is what you would expect from artists with the calibers of Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. Old Yellow Moon, though, kind of exceeded that.

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The ones that nearly got away: Emmylou Harris, Cowgirl’s Prayer

[Emmylou Harris - Cowgirl's Prayer]

I wouldn’t have started listening to country music if it weren’t for Emmylou Harris. Wrecking Ball was my gateway drug, and I wanted more.

But I knew it was the anomaly. Harris said as much, calling it her “weird album.”

Even though I loved Harris, I was wary about how to approach this newfound appreciation for a genre that speaks nothing at all to my experience. You can’t get any whiter than country music.

Luckily, Harris’ former label Warner Bros. made that exploration easier by releasing a three-CD, career-spanning boxed set titled Portraits. I determined Pieces of the Sky would be my next purchase, followed by Bluebird.

The boxed set left out Cowgirl’s Prayer, the first album Harris recorded for her then-new label Asylum before following up with Wrecking Ball. With so many great albums under her belt, surely Cowgirl’s Prayer would be a safe investment.

So I bought it, and while I could recognize it wasn’t bad, I wasn’t swayed enough to call it good. At the same time, I knew I didn’t have enough context. Harris had released a dozen and a half albums by the time I encountered her, and I had only five points of data up till then.

Cowgirl’s Prayer, unfortunately, did not survive the next crush for cash, and I sold it. But not without backing it up on a CD-R of MP3s.

Since falling down the black hole of vinyl collecting in 2013, I’ve made sure my analog acquisitions have digital counterparts, which meant my Emmylou Harris collection expanded greatly over the last two years.

I revisited Cowgirl’s Prayer for the first time in 14 years, and my more mature ears — educated extensively in Harris’ oeuvre — finally  understood that context.

As stated by other writers many times over, Harris doesn’t really record bad albums. Cowgirl’s Prayer isn’t Pieces of the SkyTrio, or Luxury Liner, but it’s not Ballad of Sally Rose, or Hard Bargain either. If Harris’ albums were ranked, Cowgirl’s Prayer would inhabit the upper half of that list.

She sounds reinvigorated after a lackluster turn on Brand New Dance. The eclectic song choice and pristine production could have been a product of her early days with producer Brian Ahern, while the sparser arrangements hinted at the introspective direction her music would go.

What I didn’t understand about Cowgirl’s Prayer was the fact it was a pivot. It was the last album Harris would record aimed at a mainstream country audience, but it set the template for Wrecking Ball and everything that came after.

An unlikely comparison would be Sade’s Love Deluxe. I thought the album was a dud because I wanted more of Stronger Than Pride. I didn’t realize Love Deluxe was the starting point for Lovers Rock and Soldier of Love. Of course, it took Sade eight years to clarify that point.

Wrecking Ball is definitely the album on which Harris transformed her career, but before it could happen, Cowgirl’s Prayer needed to set up the shift.

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Looking ahead, April-July 2015

[Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free]

Part of me still misses ICE Magazine, the publication dedicated to reporting on new releases and reissues. Super Deluxe Edition has done a good job recapturing the kind of reporting that went into ICE. I’ve adjusted to using Pause and Play for tracking new releases, but sometimes, I get more relevant information from the personalization features on Discogs.

ICE launched in the early ’90s to track compact disc releases. It ended publication just as the download market ate into CD sales. If a similar publication were to launch today, it would probably report on which artists have made their content exclusive on which streaming service. And vinyl. Talk about turnabout being fair play.

10,000 Maniacs, Twice Told Tales, April 28

This latest incarnation of 10,000 Maniacs brings Mary Ramsey back into the fold and welcomes a guitarist who also doubles on vocals. For this album, the Maniacs reach for the roots, covering the traditional music that has informed their sound.

Roomful of Teeth, Render, April 28

Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I had the temerity to stick with my composition studies in college. It might have sounded like the stuff happening in Brooklyn with the likes of Roomful of Teeth, So Percussion and Alarm Will Sound.

Takaakira Goto, Classical Punk and Echoes Under Beauty, May 5

Taka wrote this album around the time MONO started getting orchestral. I’ve enjoyed the rougher sound of Rays of Darkness too much to want to go back in time.

Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, The Traveling Kind, May 12

Brian Ahrens didn’t produce this second duet album, but Harris and Crowell wanted The Traveling Kind to reflect where they are as artists now. It’s hard not to have high expectations.

Deebs/Jarrell Perry, Shift, May 19

A lot of attention will focus on the second album by Frank Ocean, but for my money, Jarrell Perry does a far more adventurous job pushing the edges of R&B.

Faith No More, Sol Invictus, May 19

Yeah, yeah, insert grumbling about Jim Martin’s lack of involvement here. I’m still curious.

NOW Ensemble, Dreamfall, May 26

See above about labelmates Roomful of Teeth.

Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free, July 17

Damn, Jason Isbell is looking mighty fine on that cover photo. I couldn’t get enough of Southeastern, so I’ve spent the last few months devouring his 2011 album Here We Rest. Now a new set is just going to keep this jones going.

Frank Ocean, Boys Don’t Cry, July 2015

Hey, Frank, could you convince Universal Music to put out a decent vinyl issue of channel ORANGE as well? Thanks.

Duran Duran, TBD, September 2015

Not since Colin Thurston has Duran Duran worked with the same producer twice. Mark Ronson brought out not just the vintage sound of Duran Duran but also the unmistakable essence of a Duran Duran song. Here’s hoping the latter gets retained if the former evolves.

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